I see them in my mind's eye now: the headmaster with his grey, double- breasted suit and trilby hat, sitting in our kitchen; my father in his overalls, just home from the shipyard, a half-smoked Capstan behind his ear; and I realise, sadly, that the past - the England of 1945 - really is another country.
The War had brought my father and the headmaster together when they were air-raid wardens. They might never have met otherwise. When the War was over, the things they had talked about in the shelters brought them together in another campaign - to win the election for Labour. The Conservative Party, which had presided over huge unemployment on Tyneside before the War, had devised the hated means tests to determine welfare benefit, and whose appeasement of Hitler was still a bitter memory, must be kept out.
Mr Churchill, everyone agreed, had been a magnificent wartime leader. But hardly anyone in Hebburn and Jarrow wanted his party to run the country again. In the country as a whole, everyone expected Churchill to win. Tory candidates printed his photograph on their election pamphlets with the slogan help him finish the job. It seemed almost inconceivable to the Conservatives that he would be rejected. He was, after all - to use a term that didn't exist then - the most high-profile politician of the age, with his huge cigar, his V-for-Victory sign and, above all, his inspiring speeches to the nation on the wireless. Without him we probably would not have won the War. So why did he lose the peace?
Perhaps people had woken up to the realisation that, as George Orwell wrote in 1941 in The Lion and the Unicorn, Britain resembled "a family with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons...a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts...a family with the wrong members in control..."
The War changed everything. Well-educated middle-class young men from the Home Counties shared dug-outs with working-class Scousers from back- to-backs in Liverpool. Nice young women from Kensington drove army trucks full of Jocks from Glasgow. On the "Home Front", housewives in comfortable suburbia with evacuees from the slums billeted on them were shocked by the malnourished children, their threadbare clothes, the overcrowding back home revealed by their artless talk, or by their surprise at being given a bed to sleep on rather than under. In The New Look, his brilliant analysis of Britain in the Forties and Fifties, Harry Hopkins wrote: "Around mobile canteens in the Blitz, in the war factories and rest centres and air-raid shelters and hostels, old barriers of caste and convention were shattered."
Unlike the First World War, in which the people were told as little as possible about its awful realities, this had been a war in which the common man and woman, whether in the front line or in the rations queue, were given a fairly good idea of what was going on.
No one knew better than Churchill, leading a coalition government of Conservative, Labour and Liberals, that to keep up morale when the odds against winning looked impossible, the people would have to be taken into the government's confidence. Every battlefront in the War had its newspaper bringing news from home, produced by soldier-journalists.The letters in their correspondence columns, full of soldiers' gripes and sarcastic observations on their conditions, would have got them court martialled in the First World War, but now they received an explanation or a sympathetic comment from headquarters. Because this, according to official doctrine, was their army, navy and air force, so they must be allowed to have their say. They must also be kept informed. The Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) was set up, producing pamphlets and wall diagrams and giving compulsory classes. It was an imaginative and successful experiment in constructive democracy. Though many servicemen saw its classes as an opportunity for a good kip, others were fired up to want to know more.
If knowledge is power, there was no greater demonstration of its effects than the 1945 election. One half of the country now knew, for the first time, how the other half lived. And the other half had learned how the social machinery of the country worked and, more importantly, how it could be changed to improve their lives. The promise that it could be done was offered by the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, which Labour wholeheartedly adopted. This extraordinary official document, with its vividly Cromwellian style, denouncing the "Five Giant Evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness", did more than anything else to win the election for Labour in 1945.
It was the blueprint for the welfare state, setting out the aims of social insurance for all, a comprehensive health service available to all, cash allowances for children, a national minimum wage, and full employment as the essential basis of the whole structure. It sold 100,000 copies in its first month, putting it level with the highest sales of fiction. Sir William Beveridge, the white-haired, patrician civil servant who wrote it, became a popular hero, able to fill any hall in the country when he spoke about his plan. Long queues to buy it formed outside the Stationery Office; the country's biggest selling newspaper, the Daily Mirror, ran explanatory features; army commanders urgently demanded copies to distribute to their troops - and, dutifully, the ABCA set about
describing it to the Forces on their blackboards.
Really, the Tories should have heeded the warning of a mock election held among the soldiers in Egypt in 1944. Labour won 119 seats, the Conservatives only 17. And, during the 1945 election campaign, a Gallup Poll in 195 constituencies predicted 47 per cent for Labour (47.8 on the day), 41 per cent for the Conservatives (39.8 per cent) and ten per cent for the Liberals (nine per cent). But opinion polls were then too new-fangled to be believed.
Sheltering as they did behind the massive presence of Churchill, the Tories were badly let down by his own conduct in the campaign. He had lost his touch. In a BBC broadcast, he uttered a notorious gibe against his former coalition Cabinet colleagues, saying that to carry out their socialist programme they would need to establish a Gestapo. Servicemen, hearing it on the Tannoys in their barracks or ships, laughed derisively. Lord (then Major Denis) Healey remembers a broadcast in which he addressed the electorate as "You, who are listening to me in your cottages..."
There was a strange period of anti-climax after polling day on 5 July as the votes cast in Britain lay in their boxes awaiting the arrival of the postal votes from the Forces overseas. When they were opened 19 days later, their vote was overwhelmingly for Labour,which won by a majority of 145. The Tories lost 203 seats, Labour gained 227, the Liberals were left with only 12.
It was sensational. A woman dining at the
Savoy was said to have gasped: "But this is terrible - they've elected a Labour Government and the country will never stand for that." Tory grandee Alfred Duff-Cooper DSO sniffed that, "The private soldier always votes against the sergeant-major", thus, like the rest of his party, totally misreading the national mood. As the political commentator Anthony Howard wrote in The Age of Austerity, "The 1945 voter was not so much casting his ballot in judgement of the
past five years as in denunciation of the ten before that. The dole queue was more evocative than El Alamein..."
The Labour leaders themselves were astonished at the result. Ernest Bevin, the coalition minister who had so brilliantly organised manpower during the War, was, for once, "speechless". The new prime minister, Clement Attlee, could hardly believe it. "He looked very surprised indeed," King George VI wrote in his diary of their meeting at Buckingham Palace.
Today, when most political change is negative - cuts in welfare and sickness benefits, parents asked for cash to pay for an extra teacher in a state school, closure of hospitals, withdrawal of rail services - it seems scarcely believable that political news could bring so much happiness. Three years after the Labour victory that caused such joy in our street, my father returned from work one day smiling broadly and holding up his Daily Mirror, which had the huge front-page headline THE DAY IS HERE. Aneurin Bevan had won his long struggle with the British Medical Association and we now had a National Health Service. There would be no more anxiety about that doctor's bill tucked behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Labour was delivering on all the main promises of the Beveridge Report. The dreams my father and the headmaster had campaigned for were starting to come true. They are both dead now and, though I wish they weren't, I'm glad they were spared the experience of Mrs Thatcher treading on them.Reuse content